Book Review of Bad Behavior Stories by Mary Gaitskill

For my birthday, my husband David gave me a copy of Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill.  It wasn’t a book he’d read himself or even heard the author interviewed.  He chose it because a guy was shopping in his store with a Strand book bag.  Since we used to live in Rockland, ME, and travel there often, we are huge supporters of The Strand theater.  My family has been going there for generations.  When David approached the young man to tell him how much he loved the theater too, he learned that the bag was from The Strand bookstore in NYC.  This interaction planted a seed that hatched into a birthday adventure.  He ordered a Strand bookstore bag to go with my Strand theater hoodie.  I’ve already worn them together on several occasions.  David also gave me a copy of Richard Brautigan’s collection Revenge of the Lawn, The Abortion, and So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away.  Then we made a trip to NYC to visit the bookstore.

The reason he picked Bad Behavior was that a former Strand employee wrote it.  Little did he know that one of the stories was made into a favorite movie of ours titled Secretary.  I read Bad Behavior on the train ride to and from NYC.  It was funny to think of how racy it must have been when it first came out in 1988.  By today’s standards, it wasn’t wicked edgy.  However, the stories are excellent and compelling.  They were dark and weird, which speaks straight to my soul.  Seven of the nine stories are vignettes into the grungier New York City of the 1980s. 

I wanted to know how people reacted to the book when it first came out, so I found an article written by Deborah Stead for The New York Times titled Fun and Games for Sadomachists. Stead pointed out that it must have been a hard collection for any editor to work on.  Even Gaitskill admits that she was struggling to be recognized because she was “writing sleazbag stories.”  I’m looking at this book with a lens from today with stories about openly gay men, prostitutes, drug use, as well as S & M, and they feel tame to me.  But that’s not what stands out. It’s that the stories are about people trying to relate to one another.  Relationships struggled then, and they struggle now.  A quote from Gaitskill in the NYT article was that the stories were about “people in a little ugly world that in their own way they try to make pretty. They are trying to make connections.”

As I read Bad Behavior, I thought of recent well-made TV shows I’ve seen that I don’t think could have existed without people like Gaitskill paving the way.  I love the show Easy, and it feels like a modern version of this book.  I couldn’t find any direct connection mentioned anywhere, but I feel in my gut it’s there.  Fleabag is another fantastic show that gives a woman a chance to share her story about her dark and weird inner world because someone cleared the way for her to share it and for us to hear it.  By coincidence, David and I had the opportunity to see the live (taped) one women show titled Fleabag, the one-woman show that evolved into the TV show, by Pheobe Waller in the National Theater at the Strand theater. I can’t help but look at the ways a book like this has impacted (even if people don’t realize it) where storytelling and society have gone.

All of this is to say it was a great book.  Though tame by today’s standards, the pain, confusion, relationships, isolation, and all the other human feels have endured and are just as relevant today.  So yup, I recommend it. FYI, as I was writing this, I saw that Gaitskill has a new book out titled This Is Pleasure: A Story.  I, for one, can’t wait to read it.

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